Credit: Aaron Kraut

Amid the sniping between contenders for the District 8 Democratic congressional nomination—focused primarily on contrasting resumés and divergent campaign strategies—it has been difficult to discern much division among the candidates on public policy issues.

But one significant difference was highlighted this week, involving an issue that has split the Democratic Party nationally and has emerged as a major factor in several recent presidential primaries: international trade.

While a majority of the candidates in the nine-way contest for the Democratic nomination to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen had previously indicated opposition to the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Total Wine & More co-owner David Trone of Potomac—who entered the race in late January—said during a forum Sunday that he “strongly” supports the TPP.

He joins another contender, Potomac’s David Anderson, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program. Anderson has touted his backing of the TPP in recent months as part of an effort to distinguish his underdog candidacy from the rest of the field.

While a half-dozen other candidates for the Democratic nod reiterated their opposition to the TPP at the forum, one contender, former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase, has yet to take a position. And she appeared to be seeking to sidestep the issue until after the April 26 primary, saying she is awaiting findings by the U.S. International Trade Commission not due until May.

The debate over the TPP mirrors the controversy surrounding another major trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) two decades ago—during which a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, backed the agreement but many in his party in Congress did not.

Likewise, President Barack Obama regards TPP, which involves 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, as a major part of his legacy. But many congressional Democrats have declined to go along. And Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, came out against the TPP last fall after supporting it while Obama’s secretary of state.

“Any trade deal has issues between the environmentalists and labor on one hand and those thinking primarily about the economy and jobs on the other hand,” observed Anderson, a former university professor.

Such conflicting forces were reflected in Matthews’ comments last weekend. “I worked for a global hotel company for nine years, so I know we live in a global economy,” she said. “But I also know we’ve seen unintended consequences with past trade agreements where American jobs have been lost and we’ve not increased our exports….I want to wait to see what the International Trade Commission reports in May. They’ve done really intensive hearings on this.”

Matthews added, “I have deep concerns, but I also see real benefits to this agreement, and I’m going to wait to see what those ITC reports show before making a final decision. We’ve got to be thoughtful about these things in this day and age.”

However, Trone, noting that Total Wine & More purchases products from “110 countries around the world,” declared, “We can nitpick and complain but, at the end of the day, we have to move forward.

 “We need to be involved as the world’s leader in trade. Long term, history shows that these agreements, while never perfect for anyone, lifted the world…and created more prosperity across the board.”

Among the handful of congressional Democrats supporting the TPP is another successful businessman, Rep. John Delaney of Potomac, who represents neighboring District 6. At the same time, two Obama administration alumni seeking the District 8 Democratic nomination, former White House aide Will Jawando of Silver Spring and ex-State Department official Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase, have both split from the president on the deal.

“You’ve seen the decline in wages in this country,” Jawando said. “We cannot let [countries] with crappy—for lack of a better word—labor and environmental standards pass these trade agreements that are going to lower prices and put people in indentured servitude or slavery…and then hurt American workers.”

Rubin, acknowledging that as a State Department official, he had pushed for legislation designed to make it easier for Obama to get the TPP through Congress, added, “I had serious qualms at the time—and I would oppose [TPP] as it is currently.”

Added Rubin, “We do need to be engaged in the world. It’s not an either or proposition…These agreements are multi-faceted. They take years to negotiate. We have time to get it right.”

Also opposing the TPP are state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park, state Dels. Kumar Barve of Rockville and Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, and former biotech industry official Dan Bolling of Bethesda.

Raskin, a law school professor, offered an academic perspective in saying he opposed the agreement in its current form. “In principle, international trade is a fantastic bridge for the reason that 18thcentury liberals like Adam Smith and David Ricardo figured out a long time ago: The law of comparative advantage raises all the economies together,” Raskin said. But he complained, “In practice today, large multinational corporations have been using international trade agreements to drive down labor, environmental, workplace and other social protections that we built.”

Said Raskin, “I’m for free and fair trade agreements, and our party has got to write those and fight for those—because, if not, we’re going to get Donald Trump and the new fascistic impulse in the Republican Party pandering and exploiting people’s anxiety about what is taking place.”

To date, much of Obama’s support in Congress for the TPP has come from Republicans, although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said recently that he wanted the matter put off until after the November election. “We should fight against the Republicans right now,” Trone declared. “Their lobbyists are once again holding up the president’s initiative—Mitch McConnell, because of tobacco lobbyists, and [Senate Finance Committee Chairman] Orrin Hatch because of big PhRMA”—a reference to the trade association that represents the nation’s pharmaceutical manufacturers.

“It is not an option for the United States now to retreat from the global economy. If we retreat, then we watch China be the chief economic force—not only in Asia, but throughout the world,” Anderson declared. He hoping that his support of TPP along with his opposition to last year’s Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration—he is the only one of the nine District 8 Democratic candidates to oppose that agreement—will distinguish him from the rest of the pack.

“It is essentially eight establishment liberals against me. I am the one dissenting voice,” said Anderson, who also has taken positions on Social Security and child care policy at odds with the other candidates.

Trone, meanwhile, sought to use a gathering Monday morning before about two dozen party activists to try to assure them of his progressive bona fides—his business background notwithstanding.

“When I’m in business circles, probably the majority of those folks are Republicans,” Trone told the District 18 Democratic Breakfast Club. “And they look at me and say ‘Why did you vote for President Obama twice? Why are you a progressive Democrat?’ While I’m the outlier, I’m always very proud to stand up and say ‘I feel really good about being a progressive Democrat and living those values through our company.’ ”

Declared Trone, “Being progressive and thoughtful certainly starts with good pay—better than your competitors. And you can pay better than your competitors and still make a profit because you’re more efficient, you have better people, and you retain your people longer.”

He boasted of having a work force at Total Wine & More—which has about 5,000 workers nationwide—that is 75 percent full time, about twice the national average for retail chains, he said. “As one CEO told me once, ‘If you hire part-timers, you don’t have to pay them benefits. And you have to pay them less. So they’re just fungible— they come and they go,’ ” Trone recalled. “And I looked at him and said to myself, ‘He’s crazy.’ ”

In 2002, when one employee came to him complaining that her partner did not have health benefits, Trone said Total Wine & More made same-sex couples eligible for such benefits. “I didn’t ask what it cost. But it’s a matter of fairness. No matter what anybody chooses, everybody deserves to have benefits,” he said.

Facing a room that contained a significant proportion of Raskin supporters, Trone did push back a bit when questioned toward the end of the session about how many of his employees make less than $15 a hour—the level to which many Democrats are seeking to raise the minimum wage.

Trone said the “vast majority” at his company earn more than $15 an hour. “There’s not a single person in my office, I don’t think, who makes less than $15 an hour,” he said, although adding, “I don’t have the statistics.”

That prompted the questioner to ask, “Since you don’t know right now, are you willing to find out this week and tell your prospective voters what that percentage is?”

Replied Trone, with a smile, “I’m not here for gotcha questions. I’m going to skip that one, thank you.”